My Newsweek Japan Cover story: The Sewol Sinking and the Modernization of Korea


Sewol Japan Cover

The following is a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan this week on the sinking of the ferry Sewol in Korea in May. Here is the Japanese version.

Sewol has a been a terrible national tragedy, and that callous, incompetent captain should almost certainly get life imprisonment for hundreds of cases of negligent homicide. But there was more than just that. A series of bureaucratic failures led to the sinking. Bad seamanship may be been the spark, but a lot of poor regulation and corruption laid the groundwork for the sinking to become a major catastrophe.

If Park is serious about cracking down on corruption post-Sewol, it could be a big deal. I am skeptical myself; she leads a traditionalist, not reformist, coalition, and she has not governed as a innovator. But the costs of corruption in Korea – its 46 score from Transparency International – are now clear. Let’s hope she really tries.

Here’s the full version of this argument:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 250 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was enoute from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait.

The emergency response to the sinking was badly botched. The captain initially told all the passengers to stay in their rooms and not exit to the deck. Retrospectively, the captain has argued that the water was too cold to abandon ship. But later he and the crew were among the first to escape. It is not clear if the ‘abandon ship’ order was ever given, or if it was properly transmitted. Many of the bodies recovered were found in passenger rooms. President Park Geun Hye called the captain’s actions “akin to murder;” he and the entire crew have since been arrested. Worse, only two of the lifeboats on the ship activated properly, and the coast guard response was confused. The initial call for assistance went to far away Jeju; only later did local coast guard get an alert. In fact, one of the initial calls for help came from a student passenger calling a national emergency hotline.

Media Reaction…and Overreaction

The local reaction to the sinking has been astonishing. Indeed the extremeness of the reaction has itself become part of the story. The nation has been mesmerized; for two weeks, Korea’s news channels give the sinking round the clock coverage, somewhat akin to the obsessive US media response to 9/11, or the British media’s response to the death of Diana. The preoccupation with every possible detail, the wandering into conspiracy theories (for example, that the captain covered up hitting a reef, or that the Sewol company owners are religious cultists), the widespread distribution of faked text messages from inside the ship, and so on suggest a macabre, morbid fascination, which in turn suggests that Sewol may be a turning point in Korea’s modernization. Where this event might have provoked a tough, but limited debate on safety regulation in many other countries, in Korea, it provoked a national crisis of confidence, including analogies to the far-worse 9/11 attacks. The sinking has spilled into politics and is provoking a very serious, very divisive debate on corruption in Korea.

Early media figures engaged in an initial wave of self-recrimination, calling Korea a ‘dangerous nation’ or a ‘third world county.’ The Kyunghyan Shinmun (newspaper) wrote that “behind the Sewol accident lie the structural problems of the South Korean society…. Sewol only revealed, albeit dramatically, the nature of such a dangerous society.” Government regulators were accused incompetence or even criminality by the parents, NGOs, and in the media. Parents have screamed at and slapped government ministers, and they have repeatedly marched on the Blue House (the seat of the Korean presidency). Candlelight vigils, a common Korean form of protest, have been held, increasingly targeting President Park herself for negligence and lack of empathy. Bureaucrats from the oceans ministry have publicly broken down in tears for not having done more on safety in their careers. Government officials have been forced to resign. Across Korea, yellow ribbons have been tied in dedicated locations for the victims. Vacations and social events have been cancelled for weeks. In a tragic coda to the sinking, a teacher of the many students who died on the ferry hanged himself out of depression. The sheer scope and fury of the response is astonishing and quite rare in Korea.

The snowballing criticisms to the government’s lackluster response have become so widespread, that conservatives have desperately hit back by accusing Sewol critics and even family member of being North Korean sympathizers. Even President Park, in a anxious bid to change the conversation – her approval rating has fallen 10% in less than a month – has said the Sewol critics are damaging the economy and should stop talking about it. Sewol has polarized the country, become very politicized very quickly, and has provoked an unprecedented loss of self-esteem for a country better known for its pride in its economic growth and dynamic society.

This national depression has worsened as the chain of errors leading to the sinking has emerged. They discomfortingly point to larger problems of Korean life, beyond just the crew’s negligence – most importantly, the pervasive corruption of Korea’s safety rules. Multiple minor problems synergized one another, aggravating at each step what might have been far less deadly sinking: the ship was grossly overloaded and unstable; the crew did not know whom to call or what to do as events spiraled out of control; the coast guard response was slow and confused; the passengers were pointlessly kept in their rooms long after the ship was clearly sinking fast; the lifeboats failed, raising the problem of ordering the passengers into cold water; and most egregiously the captain and crew were among the first to leave, seemingly oblivious to the horrible cost of their ineptitude and dereliction of duty. Individually these errors would not have sunk the ship, but together they reached a critical mass.

Korea’s liberal newspapers, such as the Hankyoreh, have suggested these multiple overlapping failures reveal Korea as less developed than it likes to think. And the quick, shameless recourse to red-baiting by the right suggests this critique is sinking in. Has rising Korea lost its mojo, like Japan after its rapid growth period? Is it slipping into a semi-permanent funk again to Japan’s low mood after the Nikkei crash? It is early days, but there is little doubt now that Sewol is a social turning point. Koreans are a proud people; I doubt the current despondence and exaggerated commentary about a ‘dangerous society’ will last. But Sewol increasingly looks to catalyze a major, much-needed debate in Korea on corruption and rule of law.

From Tragedy to Political Crisis

What began as a humanitarian tragedy is snowballing into a major political crisis for the current administration. It is now widely understood that Sewol is a major (downward) turning point in Park’s tenure. She has already forced her prime minister to resign. Her approval rating is under 50% for the first time in her presidency. And she has been forced to apologize publicly twice and may do so again.

Park has always faced criticism that she is cold and aloof. The ‘ice queen’ is the nickname her opponents have given her. She does not seem well-suited for the ‘healer-in-chief’ role the Korean public is now demanding from her. But the Sewol will dominate South Korean politics for the rest of the year – or even longer if the investigations reveal especially gross incompetence and shady evasions of safety standards. This will all help Park’s liberal opponents in the local elections this June.

Park’s obvious awkwardness with public empathy has widened the fallout beyond administrative incompetence to a questioning of Korean society generally. Her distance and bewilderment at what to do seems to reflect the wider inapproachability and unresponsiveness of the Korean bureaucracy for the average Korean. The media has been filled for weeks with variations on the question, how is it that a modern, wealthy, educated state like Korea could not help healthy young people escape despite two and a half hours of time after the first problems on the ship?

This emerging debate is drifting toward highly contentious characteristics of the Korean economic model, like nepotism, cronyism, and weak rule of law. Improving these would mean challenging major vested interests like the family control of corporations, or insider control of political parties and the bureaucracy. As Park herself said, “we have failed to remove these layers of long-running evils. I should have tried harder to fight these bad practices and abnormalities.”

And a debate in such large terms would inevitably take on a cultural hue, pitting Confucian ‘personalism’ against (Max) ‘Weberian’ rational-legalism. Is Korea really ready to be a universal, liberal, rational state where personal connections (인맥) count for much less, where social rank no longer outweighs bureaucratic competence, where professional ‘gift-giving’ is seen as corrupting, where the biggest businesses (the chaebol) are opened to shareholder activism and foreign investors, and so on?

If Park cannot get in front of and channel this debate, if public opinion simply overwhelms her and forces a major national introspection on economic norms in Korea, it could be politically disastrous for her and South Korean conservatives generally. Park’s political alliance of the elderly and the chaebol represents the ‘old Korea’ of rapid, at-all-cost development. They have little interest in poking too deeply into corporate corruption. Indeed they are likely to see tight personal networking (인맥) not as an opportunity for corruption or malfeasance leading to events like this sinking, but as a necessary element in Korean national cohesiveness that made its rapid growth – the ‘Miracle on the Han’ – possible.

It is not clear how far Korean opinion is ready to take this next step in the modernization of the country, but Sewol will make it much harder for traditionalists and conservatives to block the debate; the costs of the old ways are now painfully clear.

What to Do? A Long Overdue Crackdown on Corruption

Of the many analogies used to describe the tragedy, such as 9/11, or its aftermath, such as Japan’s post-Nikkei funk, I believe the best is the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans. In each case, a president elected primarily because of his/her high family name recognition faced a catastrophe which suggested raised basic issue of managerial competence. Were these dynastic offspring of previous presidents actually qualified to run a large complex bureaucracy like a modern national government? Or were they elected just because of their names?

Katrina, like Sewol, shed a harsh light on nepotism. Between the Iraq War catastrophe and staggering failure in New Orleans, Bush never retrieved his reputation as the ‘MBA president;’ his party was badly defeated at the polls in 2006 and 2008; and he left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern US history. His successor, Barack Obama, came in explicitly promising to restore good governance, and for all its troubles, ObamaCare – Obama’s signature government program – is now working reasonably well.

If she is not careful, Park will go the same way. After Katrina, Bush refused to clean-house in his administration much. His empathy for the hurricane victims was strained. The obvious bureaucratic-administrative incompetence revealed by Katrina went largely unaddressed – but not by the voters, who have since handed the presidency to the other party twice.

Park must do what Bush did not, and apologies and symbolic firings, of the prime minister for example, are not enough. Park should launch a major, long over-due anti-corruption drive, lead by an independent task force of opinion leaders mostly outside of government or the chaebol. South Korea’s score from the NGO Transparency International on corruption is 46 out of 177. That is significantly higher than Japan (18) or the United States (19), much less the EU states the fill the top 20. That 46 score is far too high for the world’s 15th largest economy and member of the G-20. Indeed, it is rather remarkable that Korea continues to grow so well, given its second-world levels of corruption.

Such an anti-corruption campaign could have a hugely healthy effect if pursued without politicization. It would help restore South Koreans’ badly shaken belief in their government’s competence. By way of illustration, a few weeks after the ferry tragedy there was a subway crash in Seoul. The subway car driver told passengers to stay in the car for their own safety. They did not; instead they clambered out immediately, wandering on the rail tracks, which was almost certainly more dangerous than if they had waited in the car. This rejection of authority was widely read as a response to the fatal obedience of the students on the Sewol. Those students listened to authority – and paid for it with their lives. This kind of broken social trust cannot be restored by a few presidential speeches. Park must show real movement on tackling Korea’s longstanding ‘evils’ as she called them. She campaigned on doing that, but like so many of her predecessors, dropped serious corporate reform once she took office. This is a second chance. If she misses it, like Bush did, Sewol will stain her presidential legacy forever.”

8 thoughts on “My Newsweek Japan Cover story: The Sewol Sinking and the Modernization of Korea

  1. I am very much reminded of an essay written about the sinking by Japanese journalist Hisashi Hirai. He also discusses the unprecedented sense of national devastation and humiliation regarding the sinking, and connects it to other accidents and man-made disasters in Korea that have resulted from corruption, poor regulation, and self-serving “nunchi”.
    http://www.fsight.jp/26343

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